Once famed for its citrus groves, Riverside today is best known for its Festival of Lights. About 500,000 visitors will flock to the holiday extravaganza, which runs through Jan. 6. The fun centers on the historic Mission Inn Hotel & Spa and spills into the adjacent Main Street Pedestrian Mall. My family and I spent a weekend at the festival last year. Each evening we joined other revelers to gawk at the hotel’s spectacular light displays and decorations, listen to free concerts and sample seasonal treats. Another highlight: the horses that jingled and clopped around the inn, from Cinderella carriages to hay wagons filled with merry passengers. By day, we explored downtown’s shops, restaurants and cultural attractions, including the Riverside Art Museum. The tab: About $1,000 for a two-night stay at the Mission Inn and meals.
With its flying buttresses, turrets, regal rotunda and other fanciful touches, the Mission Inn resembles an eclectic castle. Our comfortable room overlooked the hotel’s pool, set amid palm trees and bougainvillea. Rates spike this time of year (from about $200 and up a night), but staying at the inn enhanced our festival experience and let us skip the long lines of non-hotel guests waiting to tour the decked-out grounds and lobby.
The Mission Inn has several restaurants. They were jammed, so for dinner we ducked into ProAbition, a modern take on a speakeasy. My husband declared his Smokehouse burger — loaded with caramelized onions, bacon, cheese and chorizo — a winner. Blue cheese tater tots — a house specialty — with spicy chipotle dipping sauce and salads satisfied my daughter and me. The next morning, we hit casual Simple Simon’s for brunch. Our egg dishes were good, but the homemade chicken apple sausage stole the show.
We delved into the hotel’s fascinating past at the Mission Inn Museum. A 75-minute docent tour was worth the $13 fee (more during the Festival of Lights). Our guide took us to parts of the hotel that are usually off-limits to guests, such as the St. Francis of Assisi Chapel with its stunning Tiffany stained-glass windows and 18th century gold altarpiece from Mexico.
THE LESSON LEARNED
Festival crowds can be overwhelming, but the infectious holiday mood helped me keep my inner Grinch at bay.
Mission Inn Hotel & Spa, 3649 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside; (951) 784-0300. 238 rooms from $159 offseason. Four wheelchair-accessible rooms.
Mission Inn Museum, 3696 Main St., Riverside; (951) 788-9556. Open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily; check website for extended hours during the Festival of Lights. Docent tours cost $13 for adults; free for children 11 and younger (with paying adult). During the festival tours cost $18 for adults and $5 for children age 4 to 11. Members of AAA, AARP or the military get $1 off. Schedules vary. Wheelchair-accessible.
ProAbition, 3597 Main St., Riverside; (951) 222-2110. Open daily; check website for hours. Wheelchair-accessible.